In both the American and French Revolutions, pamphlets became one of the most often utilized means of politcal battle. Pamphleteers and their motivations for writing were as diverse and complex as the documents themselves. The paper wars of the Atlantic Revolutions created an impressive body of work ripe with emotional pleas, political diatribes, and unconventional ideas.
Historians have relied on these pamphlets to gain insight into the events of the past and for support in recreating their accounts of the Revolutions. However, few have focused on a single pamphlet and its impacts on the societies in which they appeared, and none have examined these pamphlets comparatively across multiple Revolutions. By comparing similar pamphlets from the American and French Revolutions and exploring how they influenced public opinion, the significance of this literature’s impact on history will begin to emerge.
John Ferling’s comprehensive account of the American Revolution, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, offers an excellent overview of the events surrounding the War of Independence. His in-depth research, utilizing both credible secondary sources and numerous primary documents, presents a narrative chronology filled with key details and character sketches. Ferling’s book provides a wonderful resource by which pamphlets can be placed into the correct historical context. He references various pamphlets throughout his account, even acknowledging the shifts in language and theme as revolutionary ideas turned into all-out revolt. Like many general history narratives, Ferling recognizes the role of pamphlets but fails to explore their true impacts on the Revolution.
In a similar manner, William Doyle delivers a concise history of major events and the lasting impacts of France’s crisis in The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Drawing from years of research and expertise on the French Revolution, Doyle presents a brief, yet informative, chronology. Like Ferling’s account of the American conflict, Doyle’s book offers an effective resource for the historical contexts of pamphlets emerging from the French Revolution. Given its condensed nature, the narrative avoids intensive details, limiting its usefulness. Though his account is informative and provides a necessary timeline, his research in this particular source is largely negligent of pamphlet literature.
By contrast, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic by Joanne Freeman thoroughly explores the role that political gossip and the resulting paper war played in the creation of the new American nation. Relying on an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, Freeman provides a compelling account of the years following the American Revolution, as the Republic struggled to find its footing. The book includes multiple references to pamphlets, their writers, and their purposes, with one entire chapter dedicated solely to examining “The Art of Paper War.” This most useful information not only provides general insight into how, why, and when pamphlets were used; it also facilitates a better understanding of their role in both American society and national politics. It also offers a look into how America coped post-Revolution, providing for an interesting comparison to pamphlets and ideas from post-Revolutionary France.
Several scholarly articles explore the paper war of the French conflict. Among these is Dale Van Kley’s, “New Wine in Old Wineskins: Continuity and Rupture in the Pamphlet Debate of the French Prerevolution, 1787-1789,” which examines how ministerial and magisterial pamphleteers drew from history to argue for their respective sides in the early days of revolutionary France. Van Kley further explores the elements which led to the convergence of these two factions. This research produces a solid foundation for a cross-Revolution comparison with competing pamphlets emerging from the early days of the American rebellion prior to the intersection of common goals.
Another such article, “Pamphlets and Journalism in the Early French Revolution: The Offices of the Ami du Roi of the Abbé Royou as a Center of Royalist Propaganda” by Harvey Chisick, sets out to show how and why pamphlet literature was utilized to promote and defend royalist tradition. He additionally provides numerous statistics to demonstrate the national and international spread of these pamphlets from 1790 to 1791. The article lays out excellent information regarding the more conservative side of the early French Revolution’s pamphlet debate. This is comparable to the literature being produced by loyalist sources during the American situation.
Other sources examine the effect of pamphlets on public opinion in the individual Atlantic Revolutions. In “Pamphlets and Public Opinion during the American Revolution,” Homer Calkin explores the effectiveness and influence of pamphlets issued throughout the conflict. Relying heavily on these documents and quoting frequently from the literature, Calkin shows how pamphlets either gained popularity or became ineffective based upon the course of the Revolution. His extensive use of primary sources, in the form of letters and pamphlets, creates a compelling narrative of events from the perspective of those directly involved. Similar to Chisick’s examination into the significance of the Ami du Roi, Calkin also briefly addresses the role that alternate sources of information, such as newspapers, played in spreading the messages of the pamphlets. His account offers a wonderful resource for understanding why pamphlets were written, how they were utilized, and what impact they had on public opinion, providing a basis for comparison when similar questions are asked concerning the French Revolution.
Some of those answers can be found in Kenneth Margerison’s book, Pamphlets & Public Opinion: The Campaign for a Union of Orders in the Early French Revolution, which expands on the topic covered in Van Kley’s article. His abundant use of primary sources and secondary literature leads to an exhaustive overview of the year prior to the meeting of the Estates General. Throughout his account of events, Margerison examines pamphlets emerging from the debate over how to organize the Estates General and explores how these documents influenced public opinion, leading to the creation of the National Assembly. This research supports a rich comparison between pre-revolutionary pamphlets from the French and American conflicts, including explorations into how the literature directed the course of initial movements.
Religion often factored into the rhetoric employed by writers throughout both Revolutions. “‘I fear God and honour the King’: John Wesley and the American Revolution” by Allan Raymond presents an examination into the role that religious language in pamphlets played in influencing the British public during the American rebellion. Through research into Wesley’s letters and pamphlets, Raymond demonstrates how his views and language shifted throughout the course of the Revolution and even explores Wesley’s attempts to sway American opinion. The article’s concentration on the religious ideology employed by Wesley and applied to the American Revolution creates the foundation for a comparison with pamphlets containing similar language from the crisis in France.
Christopher Hodson examines this use of religious symbolism in the pamphlets and art of Revolutionary France in his article, “‘In Praise of the Third Estate’: Religious and Social Imagery in the Early French Revolution.” Through extensive research into the pamphlets published during this period, he presents compelling insight into how and why religious language was so often utilized during the first echoes of rebellion and why it basically disappeared from the texts after the establishment of the National Assembly. Authors often employed Christianity-inspired language throughout both the American and French Revolutions. This makes for a unique comparison of those pamphlets containing such ideals from both Atlantic crises.
Though the recognition of pamphlets written by women is rare due to their typically anonymous nature, there are a few exceptions. Sophie Bourgault, in her article, “A Forgotten Revolutionary Pamphlet: Madame de Genlis on Hospitality,” exclusively examines the 1791 pamphlet, Discours sur le luxe et sur l’hospitalité considérés sous leurs rapports avec les moeurs et l’éducation nationale, in order to give more attention to the role that female pamphleteers played in influencing the French Revolution. Drawing from numerous secondary sources focusing on Genlis and from Genlis’s own work, Bourgault offers a compelling exploration into this singular document. By researching how one woman was able to utilize pamphlets to promote her message in France, Bourgault has created a basis upon which women pamphleteers of the American Revolution, though seldom identified, may be compared.
Another article researching France’s pamphlet literature is Paul Hanson’s “Monarchist Clubs and the Pamphlet Debate over Political Legitimacy in the Early Years of the French Revolution.” Hanson presents an intriguing exploration into the little-known Monarchist Clubs, which arose in 1790-1791 in opposition to the Jacobins, by examining the pamphlets which emerged to discredit these groups during their short existence. Borrowing from both primary and secondary sources, Hanson’s article provides for a particularly intriguing comparison, given the similarities between the Club’s constitutional message and their antagonists’ responses and the post-American Revolution Federalists’ constitutional essays and their adversaries’ pamphlets.
Though there exist many rich resources concerning the pamphlets of the American and French Revolutions, few historians have placed upon them the emphasis they deserve. Research into the pamphlets from the latter years of the French Revolution is also noticeably absent. These are unfortunate shortcomings. The literature emerging from the revolutionary period reveals the character of their writers, the importance of unity, and the language of revolution. Only through a cross-Revolution comparison, which has yet to be explored in existing historiography, can pamphlets be truly appreciated for their significant role in instigating, molding, and directing the paths of the Atlantic Revolutions.
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On the eve of their respective Revolutions, approximately ten years apart, American colonists and France’s Third Estate wrestled with the issue of representation. In America, a series of taxes imposed by Britain were challenging the people’s rights. In France, the monarchy, clergy, and nobility sat in absolute control over the majority of the population. Questions concerning authority became a prominent theme in the Revolutions’ early years.
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One group of pamphleteers from both Revolutions is all too often overlooked: women. One of the most prominent female writers to emerge from the American Revolution was Mercy Otis Warren. She is most well-known for her exhaustive History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, but her pamphlet, Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions, is worth noting. Originally attributed to Elbridge Gerry due to its anonymity, the pamphlet, published in 1788 during the struggle to establish the new nation, strongly opposed the new Constitution. Her work was clearly influential on both public opinion and on Congress.
In France, Stéphanie-Caroline-Félicité du Crest, comte de Genlis, Marquise de Sillery published a little-acknowledged pamphlet entitled, Discours sur le luxe et sur l’hospitalité considérés sous leurs rapports avec les moeurs et l’éducation nationale in 1791 to defend revolutionary hospitality. Like Warren, Genlis was an influential writer questioning the actions of the new government. Both Genlis and Mercy Otis Warren challenged their respective governments and became women of impact in male-dominated domains.
Of all the pamphlets published throughout these two Revolutions, two would stand out from among the rest. Both were published in the midst of their respective crises, and both could not be more different in message and tenor. In America, few documents have done more to alter the course of events than Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
The French Revolution’s most recognized pamphlet would not issue from Paris, but rather from London in 1790, via the pen of an Irish statesman. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke admonished the revolutionaries. Unlike Paine’s views on the American conflict, Burke believed the revolution in France was bound for failure. Seizing an opportunity to defend revolution, Paine responded to Burke’s attacks with his own series of articles in 1791 entitled The Rights of Man.
The comparison of pamphlets from the American and French Revolutions reveals the broader themes at work across the Atlantic conflicts. These commonalities bring greater insight into understanding the workings of revolution. The machinations of revolution are not learned by studying the events, but rather by listening to the voices of the people; and through their surviving pamphlets, the people speak.
- Boucher, Jonathan. A Letter from a Virginian, to the Members of the Congress to Be Held at Philadelphia, on the First of September, 1774. In The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate, 1773-1776, edited by Gordon S. Wood. New York: Library of America, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central.
- Bourgault, Sophie. “A Forgotten Revolutionary Pamphlet: Madame de Genlis on Hospitality.” Women’s Studies 44, no. 8 (December 2015): 1130-1155. https://doi- org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1080/00497878.2015.1078214.
- Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. In The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. III. London: John C. Nimmo, 1887. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15679/15679-h/15679-h.htm#REFLECTIONS.
- Calkin, Homer. “Pamphlets and Public Opinion during the American Revolution.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 64, no. 1 (January 1940): 22-42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20087256.
- Chisick, Harvey. “Pamphlets and Journalism in the Early French Revolution: The Offices of the Ami du Roi of the Abbé Royou as a Center of Royalist Propaganda.” French Historical Studies 15, no. 4 (Autumn 1988): 623-645. http://www.jstor.org/stable/286549.
- Dickinson, John. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies. In The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate, 1764-1772, edited by Gordon S. Wood. New York: Library of America, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central.
- Doyle, William. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. https://search-ebscohost- com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=100296&site=eds- live&scope=site.
- Ferling, John. A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. https://search-ebscohost- com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=120918&site=ehost-live.
- Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
- Gerry, Elbridge. Observations on the New Constitutions, and on the Federal and State Conventions. In Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, published during its Discussion by the People, 1787-1788, edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Brooklyn, 1888. <https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1670>.
- Hanson, Paul R. “Monarchist Clubs and the Pamphlet Debate over Political Legitimacy in the Early Years of the French Revolution.” French Historical Studies 21, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 299-324. http://www.jstor.org/stable/286631.
- Hodson, Christopher. “‘In Praise of the Third Estate’: Religion and Social Imagery in the Early French Revolution.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no. 3 (Spring 2001): 337-362. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30053983.
- Margerison, Kenneth. Pamphlets & Public Opinion: The Campaign for a Union of Orders in the Early French Revolution. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1998.
- Mason, George. Objections to the Federal Constitution. In Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, published during its Discussion by the People, 1787-1788, edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Brooklyn, 1888. <https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1670>.
- Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. New York: HarperCollins, 2017.
- Raymond, Allan. “‘I fear God and honour the King’: John Wesley and the American Revolution.” Church History 45, no. 3 (September 1976): 316-328. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3164266.
- Van Kley, Dale K. “New Wine in Old Wineskins: Continuity and Rupture in the Pamphlet Debate of the French Prerevolution, 1787-1789.” French Historical Studies 17, no. 2 (Autumn 1991): 447-465. https://www.jstor.org/stable/286465.
* Featured image courtesy of Scott A. Wright via Flickr